Watch your water
Some companies are very persistent when after your money. At the beginning of this year I received what looked like a water bill, complete with a form at the bottom authorising Direct Debit. It came in an envelope with the water company's logo, and there was a similar looking envelope enclosed to send your payment form in.
Looking closer I saw the words "THIS DOES NOT FORM PART OF YOUR WATER BILL" at the top of the letter. But its main burden seemed a bit worrying. Dealing with the underground external water supply pipe into my home, it warned in block capitals:
"HOMEOWNERS ARE LEGALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS PIPE FROM THE STOP TAP IN THE ROAD TO THEIR HOME.
IF THIS PIPE BURSTS OR SPRINGS A LEAK, IT IS THE HOMEOWNER'S RESPONSIBILITY TO SORT IT OUT.
COST OF A PLUMBER'S CALL-OUT AND REPAIR BILL ARE NOT COVERED BY MOST STANDARD HOME INSURANCE POLICIES FOR WEAR AND TEAR
60% OF PLUMBERS DO NOT PROVIDE AN EMERGENCY SERVICE ".
On top of the mess and inconveniance of a water supply leak, it said the repair job would usually involve some digging, with the "correct equipment" (not calling a spade a spade) and it might be hard to find a specialist engineer in an emergency. For just £15.99 the company offered to cover me for repairs, give me access to a specialised engineer , even put £200 towards hotel accomodation if my place was uninhabitable for more than 48 hours. Sounds reasonable.
To be honest, I wasn't that worried by the letter. For a start it was not addressed to me, by name, probably because I don't pay the water bill directly, and I'm not a homeowner. I did wonder about the older people on my block, and how many had been anxiously reaching for their pens to pay without putting on their glasses to read the small print. "No, we just binned it", a neighbour reassured me.
But instead of binning mine, I'd posted a copy to my MP. He made enquiries. From these I learned that although the letter resembled a water bill, and was headed with the water company's logo, the company anxious to provide people with insurance cover is Home Service(GB) Ltd, an independent company that has an arrangement with a number of water companies.
Apparently the water regulator OFWAT had a number of complaints about Home Service's advertising. An OFWAT spokesperson said:
"Technically the leaflets are correect in that there isn't a statutory responsibility on the water companies to repair these pipes, but the figures show that in an overwhelming number of cases last year the water company did just that.
"There were almost 53,000 repairs last year - when you think that there are more than 20m households connected to a water main, this is not a lot. More than 6,000 pipes were replaced and in half of those cases the water company picked up the bill.
"One of the things we are very concerned about is the fact that these leaflets are designed to look like water bills. We recently wrote to Home Service to demand they are all redesigned so they don't look like bills in future".
OFWAT and the Adertising Standards Authority had received an assurance from Home Service that it would redesign its flyers not to look like bills.
That was on 16 February.
In June I received another communication not unlike the first, still bearing the water company's logo, but this time instead of the disclaimer about not being part of my water bill, it had the water company's address as well.
Entitled "PLUMBING AND DRAINS; ADVICE ABOUT YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES". the leaflet warned "PLUMBERS MAY GO AWAY IN SUMMER -PLUMBING EMERGENCIES DON'T". It was signed by someone called Lisa Bridge, Customer Relations Manager for Homeserve. Judging from code numbers this is the same company as Home Service.
In her anxiety as to what would happen to my water supply and home in an emergency, Ms. Bridge has not been put off by my ignoring this communication, for this month I have heard from her again. "Dear homeowner", she begins, though that is something I've never been, telling me that I'm reponsible for all plumbing and drainage within my home, and "all drainage within the boundary of your property".
The cost of cover seems to have fluctuated. The first letter offered a deal working out £3.99 a quarter, by June it had risen to £5.99 a month, and now it is slightly down at £5.40 a month.
Not that I'm worried. But I note that the latest letter has a PS: "Although Homeserve is not regulated by OFWAT there are guaranteed standards of service which are rigorously adhered to and which are available on request".
I guess I'm a bit of a fusspot going on about something that does not even apply to me, but if you have had one of these letters and you are a homeowner you might be pleased to hear that according to OFWAT you probably need not really worry about it. More generally, we might remark the benevolence of this company that is so worried about us it is sending out invitations to all and sundry, whether or not we need them, to pay for its services. I don't remember getting such loving care and attention before our water was privatised.